April 28, 2015

Class Laundry: Attempting Embroidery

At my daughter's school, families take turns doing the class laundry. Several times a year, we take home a bag of towels and smocks, and Miss P takes care of the load while I supervise. The bag itself usually needs a cleaning too. The teachers hang a tag on the bag to remind parents to bring the bag of clean laundry back on Monday, but after a while, the paper tag gets torn and worn out. I'm sure it's been accidentally washed a few times with the bag.

The tag was on its last legs, so I tried my hand at embroidery over the weekend, copying the paper tag message on cotton. There's a fabric backing as well, to keep the knots in place (hopefully).

It's not my prettiest work, but it does the trick, and now it's attached to the bag, so the laundry bag can get tossed in the wash, tag and all, and hopefully it will last a little longer than the old paper tag.

These are the times I wish for a fancy embroidery machine!

April 19, 2015

English Paper Piecing for Relaxation

a pile of paper-pieced hexagons
A friend recently posted how she embarked on 100 days of Zentangle, which is often used as a stress-reduction or meditative exercise. In high school, my circle of friends often carried around a black pen or Sharpie, producing similar doodles during study hall. We didn't have a name for it, but it seems that pattern doodling is taking off.

As an adult, I haven't been able to get into Zentangle, mainly because I more other artistic or crafting activities more. Last summer, a good friend of my sister-in-law enthusiastically tried to turn me into a knitter. At the time, I thought it was a perfect way to have a portable, repetitive activity for travel, watching TV, or at the playground, but I just couldn't get into it. I found knitting stressful, rather than relaxing. Sometimes I bring a big tote of sewing projects, cutting patterns and basting fabric on hotel room floors, but that's really inconvenient and not so good for playdates and crashing on the couch.

I occasionally quilt, but always have pieced and quilted by machine, thinking hand quilting is too time consuming. It can take 1200+ hours to hand quilt a bed covering. Needlepoint and embroidery came to mind, but I wasn't interested in investing money into supplies for a new hobby. I wanted to try something fairly easy with what I have on hand. Then, I came across a few websites about English Paper Piecing.

English Paper Piecing is a way to produce small fabric shapes that are hand stitched together to make beautiful, complex quilt tops, or other craft projects (bags, placemats, pillows, etc). While, it is very time consuming, producing each piece is rather quick and doesn't require a lot of thought, so there's opportunity for a quick win, a feeling of success immediately.

I don't have a project in mind, which means I'm not worried about how many pieces I need to make or whether they are perfect. I found a pattern that says I'd need 3500 pieces to make a queen quilt, so I'm sure I'll never use these for bedding. It's the simple, repetition that I like. That, and being able to make pieces wherever I am. Just today, I made a few at the mall playspace and then again a few while my daughter was getting washed up for bed.

Right now, I'm making hexagons. It's pretty simple. Here's how:

finished hexagons
I've found there are different approaches to making a hexagon, but this is what works best for me. I printed a few pages of small hexagon shapes (100 of them) and glued the pages to construction paper, cut the little hexagons out. Some people pin the hexagons to fabric, but I just used a glue stick.

Then I loosely cut around each paper, leaving enough fabric to fold over the paper. As long as you have at least 1/4", you'll have enough fabric to work with. No need for perfection here.

Next, fold fabric over one edge, and then another to form a nice corner.

Using needle and thread, stitch through the corner (fabric only, don't stitch the paper), and pull tight. Stitch this same spot a second time to secure. I've read that some people baste through the paper, which I'm sure works just as well, but since I don't feel the urge to pull out the stitches later, I'm happy to make more secure stitches and just avoid the paper.

Stitch the next corner just like you did the first, and continue all the way around. Once you get the hang of it, you can get through each hexagon in about a minute.

TIP: When you're likely to have to knot several times in a sewing session, you can ball up the end of the thread with your fingers. Just kind of rub it around and it will form a simple knot. No tying needed.

When you get back to where you started, just make one last stitch and cut off the rest of the thread. Now you can set this hexagon aside and start another.

Here's what the front looks like:

Since I like to make hexagons on the go, I keep cutouts, thread, needle, and scissors in a bag in my purse. Ignore the big shears. I couldn't find my little clips. I'll use some of the hexagons to make a bag to carry more hexagons. It's kind of fun, relaxing, and not at all stressful.

April 17, 2015

A Recipe for Delicious Meatballs

My daughter is pretty adverse to meat, but when I offer spaghetti for dinner, she'll usually request meatballs. Rather than serve frozen, pre-cooked meatballs, I prefer to make them from scratch. It's pretty easy and you can make a big batch to freeze for later. This way, you pick the meats you like and can adjust the meat-to-bread ratio to taste.

First, gather your ingredients. I try to keep a few containers of chopped veggies in the fridge for moments like this, as a time-saver. If you are starting from whole vegetables, it may take about 10 minutes to prep. If you have pre-chopped vegetables available, you could probably have everything mixed in about 5 minutes if you work quickly.

  • 1 pound ground chuck (or 1/2 lb ground beef and 1/2 lb ground pork)
  • 1 shallot or 1/2 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1-2 carrots, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup spinach, chopped (optional)
  • 1 slice of stale bread
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 eggs, lightly whisked

The Process
  1. In a bowl, mix the shallots, carrots, garlic, cilantro, and spinach.
  2. Cut the bread into small pieces. In the photo above, I used pieces that were too big. You'll want at least half that size or some meatballs may fall apart while simmering.
  3. Add the bread, meat, and egg, and mix everything together. You may need two eggs if you're using lean meat.
  4. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Form golf ball sized meatballs and set aside.
  6. Heat a dutch oven or saucepan with a small amount of oil and brown the meatballs.
  7. Drain excess fat, if you'd like, and add your favorite spaghetti sauce.
  8. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked to at least 160 degrees.
This recipe makes approximately 4 servings. 

April 15, 2015

I Let Myself Try a Peep

I don't like Peeps, but it had been years since I tried one, so I thought maybe I should try them again. My daughter won't be eating her Easter Peeps, so I picked one up and tried it.

I took a small bite.

It wasn't so good, but I gave it another chance.

Still gross. That last part never made it in my mouth.

April 13, 2015

Kindergarten Art: Drawing & Painting Happy Monsters

In one of our first explorations of paint, after reading The Love Monster to my kindergarten class, I asked them to create happy monsters on a large sheet of paper using crayon. They used paint to complete their piece for a quick introduction to wax resist.

April 11, 2015

Kindergarten Art: Modified Pochoir Printmaking

In March, I attended a workshop for educators, learning about pochoir printmaking. The class learned about traditional pochoir and practiced the technique using styrofoam sheets, stencils, paint, ink, and printmaking tools. It's pretty cool what you can do with basic materials, but the method would need some modification to work with a class of 20+ kindergarteners.

Below, is an example of what I made during the workshop. Using sharp tools, I quickly carved out the design and created a stencil for where I'd like color to appear under the print. Water-based ink and a brayer both led to a pretty smooth and even result, but not likely practical for the classroom on a budget.

It's a process-in-progress, but here is Modified Pochoir for Kindergarten:

Step #1: Lesson & Demo
After a quick project overview, pass out examples of etched designs for the students to both look at and feel. Point out the texture and the depth of the etching. Demonstrate how to etch a design using a dull pencil. Colored pencil allows the students to see what they're drawing a little better than graphite.

Emphasize that it's okay to use a lot of pressure, to push hard to create strong, deep lines in the styrofoam.

Step #2: Drawing & Etching
Ask the students to draw a picture or design using lots of lines and shapes. I asked the students to practice drawing ideas in their sketchbooks first, then passed out styrofoam sheets. Some students may need inspiration, so reading an interesting story or talking about space, robots, or flowers may help ideas come to mind.

Step #3: Background Painting
Depending on class size, there's two approaches that may work for the painting step. With a small class, bring 2-3 students over at a time and have them use watercolor paints to create a background design on white paper. I used rectangular sheets just large enough for two prints (one for the student to take home and one for hanging in the hallway).

If your class is large, bringing small groups together for painting will take too long, so plan this as a whole class activity either before or after making the styrofoam etchings.

Painting and etching will probably take up an entire class period, so save the printmaking step for another day.

Step #4: Printmaking
The printmaking step is best done one-on-one, more like a demonstration, when working with kindergarteners. Older students will be able to do this step more autonomously. Plan an activity that allows students to work independently for most of class while you work with students individually on printmaking.

If you're like me and you don't have ink and a brayer, just grab some craft acrylics and a paintbrush. It's trickier to get a good print, but at this level, I look at this as a basic introduction, something to get the children interested in a different way to express their ideas. Working with older students, you may want to bring in the traditional materials so they can learn the right way to do pochoir.

Apply a think coat of paint, I prefer black, but any contrasting color will do. Make sure the styrofoam is coated enough that all the paint is wet but not so thick that it will smear when applied the the paper. The nice thing about making two prints per student is you get two chances to get a clear print.

Use your hand to gently rub the back of the styrofoam, then slowly pull it off the paper. Apply more paint and repeat for the second print.

Once dry, cut the prints and have students may mount them on black paper.

April 10, 2015

Still Planning My Garden Layout

With the weather slow to warm, I have time to think (probably overthink) more on my garden layout. In an ideal world, I'd have a lot of space to work with and marked off areas for certain plants that play nice together. Working with what I have means I need to be creative in my organization to maximize sun exposure, provide even watering, and reduce the complexity of different soil needs for certain plants.

The latest plan is a slight modification in bale layout, mainly to ensure certain plants get more sun and to provide more space for big tomato and cucumber plants. I'll stuff in some greens and flowers, and experiment with growing root veggies in the bales, starting with radishes. If the radishes aren't successful, I'll know early enough to start that area over by planting more peppers or cucumbers.

I really dislike waiting for planting season. Everything is delayed at the moment, even my potatoes, originally anticipated around April 2, now may arrive around the April 18. Some of my warm-weather plants aren't scheduled to arrive until mid-June now. I'm thankful for lettuce, radish, and beets, which allow me to feel productive sooner than later.

Meanwhile, I topped the bales with composted straw from last year. It's pretty much dirt now, which means I don't need to pick up a bag of garden soil. Shortly after, my husband built a box around the second row (see photo), which will help contain the bales as they decompose. Not required, but looks nicer.

April 8, 2015

Kindergarten Art: Rainbow Project

Recently, I covered the color wheel and related topics with my kindergarten art class. After weeks of painting and coloring projects, I decided to give them a break and offer up a cutting and gluing activity. They love using scissors and all are now proficient at cutting small shapes.

After a quick review of the colors in the rainbow and a project demo, I asked students to take one strip of each color and a pair of scissors. To save time, I pre-cut wide strips, four each from a sheet of construction paper. The students cut those strips in half lengthwise and then cut small squares from each strip.

Most students were very self-directed during this project. For those with questions or who got off track, problems were easy to resolve with either quick guidance from me, or a prompt to ask a friend for help.

When finished cutting, students were asked to put away their scissors, grab a bottle of glue and begin constructing the rainbow. I left a couple of examples around the room as a reminder. Some students used too much glue. I think until first grade, that's just how it is. They receive a gentle reminder on how much glue to use, but when they come across a bottle that squeezes easily, they're so excited that they squeeze it everywhere. It's okay though, as the children are always happy to clean up their mess.

The finished rainbow should look something like this:

Here are a few from my class:

April 6, 2015

2015 Garden Plans

My garden expands slightly this year. We'll clean up our old raised bed (8x8'), add additional bales from the number used last year, and use our dirt beds on the side of the house for garlic and corn.

Last year, I had a bale garden that was approximately 4' x 12'. There's so much room on that side of the house and loads of sun to work with, so I've plotted out room for two rows of bales, each 2' x 16'.

Next year, I'm going to begin a two-year transition to traditional raised beds. The idea will be to pull out the old square bed, which is in a terrible location, and put in three beds where I now use bales, each about 5' x 15'. With that, I should be able to grow enough produce for our own summer and fall needs, plus offer plenty of leftovers to others. I'll likely have a better shot at good pollination for corn that way.

April 5, 2015

Those Darn Cats Ate My Plants

I prepared a complex, very thorough garden plan for this year, complete with planting, transplanting, and harvest charts. Like a dutiful gardener, I got seeds started indoors for those plants needing the longest time growing before transplant. They were looking quite healthy and I was pleased with a 75% germination rate (no grow light or heat mat). The plants were due to head down to the greenhouse now that the cellar has warmed up, but just before I could get them downstairs, I forgot to shut my office door and just like that, nearly all were destroyed by my cats.

Somehow, they are able to jump up on the tray without knocking it over, then they systematically ate the leaves and a few full plants. Several were found on the floor.

Rather than buy $20 in pods, I grabbed some cheap peat inserts at Fleet Farm. It's messier and may be harder to control moisture, but it's a good lesson for me to be more careful with seedlings!

My next batch of seeds starts inside around April 15-20, mainly cucumbers, radicchio, and summer squash, just in case we have terrible weather through the end of the month. I may be able to get the first batch of greens outside directly, but this is my backup plan. My currently growing tray includes bell peppers, sunflowers, wildflowers, and butterfly plants (milkweed).

The rest of my plants are to be directly sowed outside or were ordered as live plants: three varieties of tomatoes, mesclun mix, potatoes, ornamental corn, and garlic (planted last fall). My daughter is bummed we're not growing pumpkins and gourds this year but I promised her we can grow one or two pumpkin plants next year where the corn is going this year.

I wish we had a huge flat yard. I'd let my kiddo have a whole row of pumpkins.

April 4, 2015

Breakfast, B&B Style

I long for our times at Woodland Trails and the delicious multi-course breakfasts from our gracious hosts. We're not big breakfast eaters and my husband would probably prefer just a cup of coffee, but sometimes I like to treat him to something special. This week, I prepared a yogurt and granola parfait with fresh fruit and toasted Irish soda bread.

Want to recreate this delicious breakfast treat? Here's how:
  1. Sprinkle granola and currants on the bottom of a glass. The granola mix in the photo comes from the bulk bins at People's Food Co-op
  2. Add 1/2 a single serve cup of your favorite yogurt. I used Wallaby Organic in lemon flavor. 
  3. Add more granola and top with the rest of the yogurt. 
  4. Sprinkle a little more granola on top and add sliced fresh berries. 
  5. Serve with a slice of artisan-style toast and Irish butter. I like using Kerrygold Irish Butter (salted), spread on freshly baked or toasted soda bread. 
Want a great recipe for soda bread? Quick and easy recipes can be found in George Greenstein's outstanding book, Secrets of a Jewish Baker and in the Cook's Illustrated Cookbook. Cook's Illustrated offers a more traditional Irish Soda Bread, made without eggs. Greenstein uses egg. In the end, it tastes about the same either way, but I find I get more consistent results using egg. My copy of the Jewish Baker book is stained with butter, flour, and lots of love. Definitely check it out if you don't have a copy at home.

April 3, 2015

Keeping it Fresh: Springtime Grocery Shopping

As winter fades away, the availability of fresh produce increases. This time of year, most is still from California or Florida, but berries become larger, fresher, and seem to last longer. I also notice prices begin to dip in March, though often climb again during the summer when more local, smaller farmers are supplying fresh produce. I don't mind paying a little more to keep small farms thriving.

Rochester has a winter farmer's market, though I've only visited once or twice. We're not big meat eaters and rarely buy preserves since I do those myself. Come summer, though, I try to get to market twice a month, even if just for fresh flowers and sweet corn.

We're members of People's Food Co-Op, spending approximately $250 a month on food and knick-knacks. My husband frequents Fareway, a small regional grocer that still offers a full-service butcher and car service. As a family, we probably spend at least $5000 a year on groceries, though I'm not counting additional purchases from Costo, nor deducting for when we travel. It's a LOT of money. Each week, I think, "oh, just $125," but when you look at it annually, it's a bit shocking. Thankfully, my husband is quite economical, so he balances my $125 grocery weeks with his $75 weeks.

Above, you can see that most of my weeks are filled with fresh produce with lots of fruit. Strawberries are a must and I'm confident we've bought at least 12 packages so far this year. 

I tend to buy packaged greens, though it would be more economical to buy loose and head lettuce. In our case, it's just easier to have pre-washed greens available since my husband eats a lot of salad. Sometimes, I'll prep the greens myself, but I'd rather have that 10 minutes back for something more fun.

Dairy ebbs and flows. We always buy milk, though usually from Costco, and definitely like to have a few yogurts on hand for snacking. When the mood strikes, I'll pick up some pudding, sour cream, or cheese too.

The challenge of shopping at the co-op is that I can't help browse the household and personal care products. We've tried a few local and natural brands of skincare products and I usually grab a pack of incense once a month. My two favorite scents are Myrrh and Patchouli.

You won't find a lot of processed food in my cart. I don't claim to avoid it all together because it's a necessary part of my life, but whenever possible, I try to steam my own veggies instead of using canned and cook bulk rice instead of box mixes. Sometimes the smaller organic brands are the same price as big manufactures, which makes me feel a little better about what I serve my family.

April 2, 2015

Agate, the Nutty Kitty

Our most recent rescue, Agate the Cat, wishes to be outside desperately. He meows like a madman day and night and paws at the windows when I take the dog out for a potty break. With the weather warming up, I've taken Agate out on his kitty leash a few times, but now he wants even more to be outside.

This is a quieter moment of wishing to make the door disappear. You could also say he's helping with spring cleaning.


April 1, 2015

Feeling Crafty: Making a Country Doll

I was feeling crafty this month and it had been a while since I'd made anything interesting with my sewing machine. I've also got a small stash of fabric in colors and patterns I'd not likely use for clothes or quilts. With my sister-in-law likely visiting soon, I decided to make her a cute gift, something she'd enjoy as a decoration for her bed or in her office.

The doll came together quickly, just 90 minutes to cut and stitch. I spent another 30 minutes hand stitching seams after I stuffed her.

Clothes were more complicated. I wanted to stick with items I had on hand, so I used some vintage trims and country cotton prints and solids for the dress, bonnet, shoes, and jumper. Not having ribbon, I used green rickrack to tie the bonnet. My favorite part is the shoes, which were super easy to put together. Instead of buttons, I stitched little red knots, permanently attaching the shoes so they won't fall off.

Though I was happy to pass her along to my sister-in-law, who did end up visiting just a day after I finished, I was also sad to see her go. I'll have to make another for my house!